A group of 18 minority parents and grassroots leaders in the Colorado school choice movement met with Representatives Don Lee (R-Littleton) and Nancy Spence (R-Centennial) over lunch in November to discuss the need for a voucher bill in the Centennial State. The meeting, hosted by the Independence Institute, drew participants from Denver, Greeley, and Colorado Springs.
Spence, chairman of the House Education Committee, explained she is planning to sponsor legislation that would provide an “Opportunity Scholarship” to low-income students who attend low-performing schools in the Denver Public Schools system. A large contingent of attendees from Colorado Springs, who had traveled 60 miles to participate in the discussion, expressed their desire for a school choice program to serve the children in their community, too.
“My concern is for the parent’s choice,” stated Cynthia Gant from Colorado Springs. “I know what is best for my child.”
Tuition scholarship organizations have waiting lists overflowing with applications from hundreds of low-income children, according to Kathy Porter of Denver’s Alliance for Choice in Education and Evelyn Taylor of Parents Challenge in Colorado Springs. Those scholarships are attracting not the best students in the public schools–as critics charge–but children who are not succeeding there. The majority of scholarship recipients are thriving in independent schools, reported Taylor.
“They are outperforming their counterparts in the public schools,” she said.
Currently, the independent schools achieve these results without being subject to government reporting requirements for student performance and financial accounting, but that could change if students came with publicly funded scholarships, such as vouchers. For religious schools, that raises concerns over the entanglement of church and state. Silver State Baptist School Principal Rudy Gomez, one of several independent school officials present at the meeting, expressed his concern over having to meet government accountability standards.
“We expect parents to keep us accountable,” he said.
While Spence agreed parents have kept the independent schools accountable, she maintained that schools choosing to participate in a government school choice program would have to be subject to additional accountability measures.
The Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, and at least five school choice bills have been proposed. Besides Spence’s “Opportunity Scholarship” legislation, Rep. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) plans to sponsor a universal voucher bill. Rep. Keith King (R-Colorado Springs) and Sen. Bob Hagedorn (D-Aurora) plan to sponsor two very different tax credit bills, and Sen. Bruce Cairns (R-Aurora) will introduce, for the second year, legislation he calls a “Property Tax Offset.”
School choice activists hope the Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris will influence the Assembly to approve school choice options like these for Colorado’s children.
Pamela Benigno is director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado. Her email address is [email protected].